• July 12, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Richard W. Painter, former Associate Counsel to the President and Chief White House ethics lawyer, 2005-2007. Painter is co-author of the ACS Issue Brief, “Extraordinary Circumstances: The Legacy of the Gang of 14 and a Proposal for Judicial Nominations Reform.”

    Word on Capitol Hill is that Senate Democrats are thinking seriously about changing the Senate's rules to make filibusters less likely. This is a welcome development because the filibuster -- a procedural mechanism for refusing to allow any vote to take place -- has no place in a body that prides itself on deliberation and decision. A decision not to decide, or to allow a minority of senators to prevent the others from deciding, is not deliberation. It is nothing more than obstruction, a way of saying that "if the majority won't vote my way I won't let them vote at all."

    Less than a decade ago the tables were turned and Democrats used filibusters to block President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. Republicans considered amending the Senate's rules to eliminate or reduce the likelihood of filibusters, but in the end they chickened out. They were perhaps more interested in preserving their power to frustrate a future Democratic president than in supporting President Bush. Perhaps they believed that even senators of the president's own political party benefit from filibusters because they can ask the White House for something in return for trying to break the filibuster. For whatever reason Senate Republicans failed to do something about the problem and some of President Bush's most qualified judicial nominees were kept off the federal courts as a result. Other nominees had to wait around for months before they were finally confirmed.

    This situation is even worse under President Obama now that Senate Republicans who once said they despised the filibuster have shown that they actually enjoy it. Thus far, Senate Democrats have followed the precedent of whining about the filibuster but not doing anything about it, perhaps fearing that they may once again be in the minority with a Republican in the White House.  

  • February 20, 2013

    The Atlantic reports that it’s now been nearly three years since a major piece of legislation made its way through the Senate. While the Senate had done things like passing a highway bill, and reapproving the import-export bank, most of the Senate’s legislative agenda for the last two years has been lurching from crisis to crisis – like the deals the ended the fiscal cliff crisis of 2012 and the debt ceiling crisis of 2011. Even matters completely within the prevue of the Senate, and once considered routine business, are becoming mired in partisan bickering. The Washington Post commented that the filibuster of Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense, the first ever, marked the beginning of a 60-vote Senate. The president’s judicial nominations have fared even worse, with one nominee, Caitlin Halligan, waiting nearly two years for confirmation to the D.C. Circuit. Major action, such as comprehensive legislation on immigration reform and bold measures on climate change, is needed as are judges to fill vacancies on the federal bench (and there are a lot of them), but progress looks bleak in this atmosphere thanks largely to one of the nation’s two major political parties. The American people deserve far better than a Congress full of preening politicians constantly consumed with holding onto or expanding power.  

    -- ESA   

  • January 29, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    President Obama lauded bipartisan Senate work on immigration reform, but went further by calling for a clearer path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, without tying it to rigid border security measures.

    From Las Vegas, the president warned of a pitched battle as reform proposals advance, saying, “We can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate. We’ve been debating this a very long time.”

    The New York Times reported that the White House “is also proposing that the United States treat same-sex couples the same as other families, meaning that people would be able to use their relationship as a basis to obtain a visa.”

    During his speech, Obama said, “Think about it – we define ourselves as a nation of immigrants. That’s who we are – in our bones. The promise we see in those who come here from every corner of the globe, that’s always been one of our greatest strengths. It keeps our workforce young. It keeps our country on the cutting edge. And it’s helped the greatest economic engine the world has ever known.” (Video of speech available by clickng picture.)

    Longtime advocates of immigration reform like MALDEF sounded a cautiously optimistic note, and offered praise of the president’s speech.

    MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas A. Saenz said, the president “directly challenged all of us to put aside exclusionary xenophobia and to recognize our common immigrant heritage and our common mission of serving family and country."

    Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who will conduct a hearing on immigration reform following the State of the Union Address, said in a press statement that he was “particularly pleased to see that the president’s proposal includes better access to visas for victims of domestic and sexual violence, improved laws for refugees and asylum seekers, an enhanced investor visa program, and the assurance that every family, including binational gay and lesbian spouses, receives equal treatment under the law.”

    Right-wing groups have long fought immigration reform and many aren’t likely to halt their efforts to scuttle reform. Rush Limbaugh, right-wing radio host, said he and Fox News must step up to destroy reform.

  • September 24, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Republican effort to avoid filling judicial vacancies in the hopes of gaining more political power in November continues unabated, but not without justifiably sharp criticism.

    Senate Republicans’ agenda of obstructing everything Obama may be simple and nakedly political, but obstruction of judicial nominations is also disastrous for the nation’s court system. The Senate left town with more than 75 vacancies on the federal bench, many of them deemed emergency vacancies by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts of the federal bench.   

    Last week the Republicans blocked Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid’s effort to force votes on 17 district court nominations, and left town for a recess after confirming only two. The Senate confirmed Gonzalo Curiel for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California and Robert Shelby to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. Both nominees were recommended for confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee about five months ago.

    In a press release, containing a list of pending nominations and a lengthy statement, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) blasted the Republicans’ intransigence. The obstruction of the judicial nominations is yet another example of “Senate Republicans putting partisanship ahead of the interests of the American people,” Leahy said. “I have served in the Senate for 37 years, and I have never seen so many judicial nominees, reported with bipartisan support, be denied a simple up-or-down voter for four months, five months, six months, even 11 months.”

  • June 19, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Almost 50 years ago this month the U.S. Senate overcame a filibuster that stretched from March to June of 1964 to pass the Civil Rights Act.

    The filibuster led by a southern bloc of lawmakers was aimed at saving political lives and continuing the brutal oppression of African Americans nationwide. But pressure from civil rights groups, such as the NAACP as well as many other civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., helped to doom the filibuster, which was vociferously fueled by Sens. Strom Thurmond, Richard Russell and Robert Byrd. (Other organizations that helped build pressure to end the filibuster included the AFL-CIO, the ACLU, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, as well as religious groups.)

    The southern bloc had an aversion to civil rights legislation in general. But the bloc was seriously bent on scuttling the civil rights measure’s provisions that yanked federal funding from groups and projects that discriminated against African Americans and barred private and public workplace discrimination.

    Sens. Everett Dirksen and Hubert Humphrey pushed a compromise bill, lessening federal enforcement mechanism, which also helped put an end to the filibuster in early June. The debate over the civil rights legislation lasted more than 80 days.

    On July 2, President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law, saying in part, “We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights.”